Sunday, June 15, 2008

Chickbusters: What’s So Compelling about Sex and the City

The new Sex and the City movie isn’t just a blockbuster chick flick—it’s a chickbuster. Why do so many women identify with the characters even if they can’t afford the clothes? We’re all compelled by the same cultural hazing.

We flock to this movie thinking it’ll be a fun celebration of all things chick—the clothes, the shoes, and especially the sisterhood, always there to protect you from those noncommittal, unfaithful, unappreciative men—or at least to nurse you back to health and mirth after the heartbreaks they inevitably dish out. But as Carrie says of the jewelry auction the foursome attends at the beginning, “I thought this [movie] was going to be fun, but it’s kinda sad.”

The film’s structural principle is the fearful symmetry with which each one of the friends is humiliated in turn by the rest, for failing to fulfill the gender ideal required by her clothing. The sisterhood blocks the desired fulfillment of heterosexual coupling in every case, until it can administer sufficient hazing to ensure that the gender norms required for the success of such coupling will be observed.

The first and grandest humiliation is, of course, Carrie’s abandonment at the altar. This seems to be perpetrated by Mr. Big, and to have more to do with stereotypically masculine commitment phobia than with women’s fashions. It takes only a little attention to detail, however, to notice that it’s Charlotte and Miranda, not Mr. Big, who really see to it that Carrie is left all decked out in bridal couture with no place to go—except, of course, to Mexico, to take them on her intended honeymoon, where the sorority hazing continues. Just as Carrie cannot have her wedding, Miranda cannot go back to Steve, and Charlotte cannot have her so long desired pregnancy, until they, too, have been humiliated by the sisterhood of the traveling gender police for violating the decorum dictated by their clothing. And untameable Samantha gets the city but no sex.

First, Samantha savages Miranda over the pubic hairs protruding from her bikini line, as if these constituted a personal affront. Miranda’s reply spells out the subtext of this assault: “okay so it’s all my fault, I’m the one who’s not attending to sex in my marriage, so I got what I deserved, right?” Steve’s infidelity is just punishment for her selfish neglect of intimate waxing while raising her child and pursuing her high-powered career.

Now it’s fascinatingly telling that Samantha should be the one to administer precisely the bikini-line humiliation, since the TV series made so much of the fact that what Samantha’s own man Smith finds sexy is actually a “full bush.” It’s really Samantha herself, then, by insisting that she “would never have that…situation,” who is thereby selfishly failing to attend to pleasing her man.

By contrast, before the disastrous wedding, Carrie seems at last happy with hers—she refuses to dish any details about her sex life except to say, with an expression like that of the cat that ate the canary, that “when Big colors, he rarely stays inside the lines.” Miranda also has failed to stay inside the lines, and it’s clear that this movie is really about punishing that crime, in both sexes.

Staying inside the lines is also the problem when Charlotte poos in her designer trousers. The Montezuma’s Revenge that Charlotte’s tried so hard to avoid is the joke that finally brings back Carrie’s ability to laugh—“when something’s really, really funny,” as Samantha predicted and Carrie reminds us. A friend’s dysentery and humiliation is “really, really funny”? Yes, because it’s the laughter itself, not the illness, which achieves the goal of chick hazing. Charlotte’s crime is to have tried too hard all along to have what she wants—and that is this film’s ultimate crime, even though what this woman wants is precisely to stay inside the lines. Charlotte’s always tried too hard to control her own body, to stay fit, to avoid drinking the Mexican water, to become a mother. Her friends have to have a good laugh at the expense of her soiled designer resortwear before she can stop trying so hard—which, she comments later, is the reason she’s rewarded with an unexpected pregnancy.

Samantha, despite her oddly aggressive stance on waxing, also fails to stay properly inside her pants. At a little tummy protruding over her waistband, the gay wedding planner (one of the girls, too) barks, “What’s with the gut?” But she later confesses she had already read his insensitive criticism in the women’s looks: “I didn’t notice [I’d gained weight] until I saw it on your faces.” So the gay man’s remark was just for the benefit of the cinema audience—an extra 15 pounds, clearly, is too great a crime even to be funny to the girls (“I say this with love, but how could you not notice? Carrie rebukes her later with the deepest concern). Samantha’s just punishment is to spend Valentine's Day lying with food spread out on her naked body while her partner ignores her. Even though she explains she’s gained the weight because she’s “eating everything except [her lusty next-door neighbor’s] d**k,” she never gets to eat that either, even after she ends her relationship because she can’t bear the curb on her unabated hungering for other men. Staying inside the lines is “all about the other person,” as Samantha complains of the state of being in a committed relationship, and she is portrayed as too resolutely selfish, too interested in getting out of her pants just like the men in this film do, for it to allow us to see her hunger rewarded with any satisfaction.

Carrie, on the other hand, is rewarded with the classic happy ending, but only after suffering the Biggest humiliation of all: “I AM HUMILIATED” is all she can say while pounding Big with her bridal bouquet. She still doesn’t get, at that moment, the lesson she has yet to learn through this hazing: that she too has committed her friends’ crime of selfishness. She has strayed outside the lines. It was the sisterhood that brought her to this pass by squeezing her in the cultural double bind between the harsh economic realities of women’s lack of equal access to the means of living, on the one hand, and the fantasy of princess femininity, on the other. Now the friends must come together one last time to ensure that Carrie be prevented from marrying until she can be properly hazed into giving up the egotism involved in both the princess fantasy and the fantasy of self-reliance, which have distracted her from giving more selfless consideration to her man’s vulnerabilities.

Why do I say it’s the sisterhood that brings about Carrie’s humiliation, rather than classic masculine commitment phobia? First, it’s Miranda who warns Carrie to be smarter about securing legal rights to property—a message also reinforced by the sad, not fun, jewelry auction at which Samantha selfishly bids up Smith on the ring she wants to give herself. That results in Carrie’s and Big’s decision to get married. When Carrie’s happy to have a small wedding in a thrift-shop, no-label dress, Charlotte and the gay wedding planner censor that idea. Then it’s her boss, Enid the fashion editor, who orders her to pose in bridal couture for Vogue. Finally, it’s Vivienne Westwood who thrusts upon Carrie the dress in which she looked so pretty at the Vogue shoot. And the dress itself becomes the ultimate female character, taking on a life of its own—and a will that overpowers Carrie’s own. It forces Carrie to blow up the size of her wedding (“It’s the dress!” she replies to Big’s growing doubts—the outsized dress requires an outsized occasion). And it’s the dress that blows up that occasion in turn, turning Carrie into an abandoned man in drag.

At the photo shoot they make Sarah Jessica Parker look absolutely beautiful in the Westwood gown, long hair flowing in romantic ringlets and soft pink lipstick that makes her look like a young bride as she twirls in it like my 4-year-old niece in her princess costume—even though, Enid has pointed out, she’s close to crossing another line—she’s “the oldest age at which one can wear a bridal gown without the unintended Diane Arbus subtext.” At her own wedding, at the same age, in the same dress, she positively screams Diane Arbus. We know as soon as we see her in the dress a second time that there’s something dreadfully wrong, even before Big fails to show up. The severely swept-back hairdo, the harsh, strong colors of the dead bird in teal contrasting with the magenta lipstick that shows off all the lines around her mouth—and doesn’t quite stay inside the lines!—are as unflatteringly age-emphasizing as the fact that the bodice on the dress, which was becomingly fitted for the fashion shoot, now stands out from Carrie’s boyish chest like a pointy breastplate rather than a feminine bodice.

Gender Gestapo to the rescue: The film itself makes much of the fact that Miranda tells Mr. Big, already suffering from his perennial doubts, that “you two are crazy to get married.” There’s less emphasis on the fact that it’s Charlotte who finally prevents Carrie from coming together with the apologetic Big, and even though he shows up in time to save the wedding, even though Carrie has already climbed out of the limo to meet him, it’s Charlotte who grabs her and hides her face from him—just as the dress, or its veil accessory, hid her face earlier when he was waiting in the car, beseeching, ‘Come on baby, just turn around so I can see you.’ It’s Charlotte again who shouts NO repeatedly at Big as she packs her girlfriend back into the car, “like a cream puff through a keyhole,” in the words of the wedding planner, words that perfectly describe the film’s job of stuffing its female characters back inside the lines.

Miranda first tries to confess her having scared Big away from the wedding while wearing a scary witch’s hat and compulsively pulling a combination of witch props and feminine hygiene products off the drugstore shelves, just after commenting, “Witch or sexy kitten—those are the only two costumes for women.” The conclusion of the Sex and the City movie offers two other costumes in place of those: modest bride (Carrie in her thrift-shop suit) or modest mother (Charlotte with her astonishingly covered-up, colorful beachball-like maternity wardrobe). Both are suitably nurturing of others—particularly of the men who are always—with the film’s total approval—busting outside the lines and out of their pants, begging for everyone to just be themselves, to let it all hang out. When Steve begs Miranda to come back to their marriage, there’s a huge penis right between their faces in the mural on the wall. The first thing Steve had said when she walked out on him was “It’s still me,” and indeed that pantsless penis hanging on the wall is what got him into trouble and is also the essential “me,” the truth he confessed about himself, King Lear’s “unaccommodated man,” begging to be accommodated by his woman. The first thing Carrie said when Big expressed his fears about playing the gender roles, “this whole bride and groom thing,” was, “Remember it’s just you and me doing this, nobody else.” With her bridal drag costume covering her face, however, he’s as little willing to recognize that it’s still her as Miranda is to recognize the errant Steve. Carrie and Miranda both need the Gender Gestapo to help them find the right costume (as Miranda concludes in the drugstore scene, covering her face with the scariest mask in the place, “Maybe I should just wear this and a briefcase and go as myself”). Chickbusted, Carrie finally becomes “herself” by becoming more open and sensitive to the needs of the man who’s too Big to stay inside the lines, and suitably, becomingly, contains herself inside the modest lines of her thrift-shop wedding suit.

Only the Cinderella Manolos remind us that even fairy-tale princesses have always been hazed.